Next Generation Leadership

Relationships – the Key to 26 Years of Irresistibly Italian Success

February 7, 2012 By Kristina Magnuson

By Alexander Wright, BSBA 2012writes about Susan Gravely’s visit to last week’s Family Enterprise Center class.

Imagine bringing dinnerware to life… the colors, the designs, the texture and the naturally unique beauty of knowing each piece is handmade and slightly different from the others.  Vietri has been doing this for over 26 years, beating out Big Brown Bag stores and imitators from the Far East.

Susan Gravely started the class with a wonderful fairytale like story of how she, her sister and mother grew an idea into a profitable and booming business from eastern North Carolina.  Taking a trip upon the death of her father, Susan, her sister and mother flew to Italy.  The trip was fantastic until her mother’s purse was stolen, containing their money, traveler’s checks and passports. 

However, a phone number Susan received on the flight to Italy from an Italian businessman would save their trip and birth Vietri.  On the flight over, Susan forged a relationship with a man from Florence that helped the women obtain new passports, and meet executives and artisans that would enable the family to start their American inspired Italian dinnerware company, Vietri.

This is one of the many stories Susan shared to demonstrate how entrepreneurship is about having an incessant passion for your products and ideas, while taking the time to know the people you work with, whether an agent, supplier, artisan, family member or customer. 

Starting the business was extremely difficult as other large players such as Crate & Barrel would be getting their pieces from the same artisans in Italy.  However, the agents from the big stores did not know the people as well and value the relationship on the same level as Susan.  Attending the weddings of her artisans’ children and bringing gifts to their families, the relationship she built was extremely special to both parties as the same artisans would save designs and pieces exclusively for her, allowing Vietri to compete with larger competition.  Moreover, the power of speaking Italian and knowing the culture of the Italian people gave Susan the chance to show respect and build relationships in the way her suppliers understood.   

One recognizes the importance of her family oriented business in the way she is grooming her nephew to one day take reins of the company.  For two months, she has sent Lee to Italy to learn the language and culture in order to show him the side of business one cannot learn from finance or operation courses.  She transfers the same ideological respect for cultures she was raised with as a child to her own family through this preparation of succession. 

Although she considers her employees, suppliers and others as family, taking a look at her own domestic family, Susan wants to promote communication, questions and ideas from the future generation of owners.  Staying on at the company while bringing in her nephew, the planned successor, allows for the integration of her generation and his to occur.  Not only does he not feel the stress of having the business thrown on him, but Susan is also able to train, mentor and demonstrate to Lee the importance of her relationships, as the business survives on the experiences and trust shared between Susan and her Italian associates. 

Coming from a family business that also prides itself on customer service, dedication and above all relationships with family and associates, Susan showed me the importance of what my own family has created through her lens of Vietri.  Concluding the class she gave great questions for younger generations to ask their parents or family members currently leading businesses – How do you define leadership?  What are three to five values you find important?  When you are up at night, what do you think about?  What are three to five goals you have for my success?  Susan’s insightful questions to promote communication and understanding of one generation to the next allows for a family business to prepare and execute a successful succession. 

Susan also gave everyone a gift from Vietri to symbolize her kindness, openness and desire to form a relationship with everyone in the class.  This action solidified the importance of forming relationships and trust in business and in life.